A CTO’s favorite list of lessons from the Miracle of the 1980 Olympics

February 20, 2010
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I’ve previously posted the below, but it has been over a year and it is a favorite story so what they heck, this is a great story of leadership, vision, experience and mastery of art and science and my hope is that even if you have thought these through in the past you might want to check them out now that the Winter Olympics are well underway.

The lessons below come from the true story of the 1980 US Olympic Hockey team. The guys that did the impossible by defeating the Soviets. We all know the story. And there is a GREAT movie titled “Miracle” that captures it very very well. From the Amazon description of the movie: “Kurt Russell gives a brilliant performance as the dynamic and determined coach Herb Brooks, who had an impossible dream — beat the seemingly unbeatable Soviets at their own game. Starting with a handpicked group of 26 undisciplined kids, Brooks coached them to play like they never played before, and turned 20 of them into a team that believed they could achieve the unachievable — and in the process, united a nation with a new feeling of hope.”

Think of the coach of that team…

I’ve previously posted the below, but it has been over a year and it is a favorite story so what they heck, this is a great story of leadership, vision, experience and mastery of art and science and my hope is that even if you have thought these through in the past you might want to check them out now that the Winter Olympics are well underway.

The lessons below come from the true story of the 1980 US Olympic Hockey team. The guys that did the impossible by defeating the Soviets. We all know the story. And there is a GREAT movie titled “Miracle” that captures it very very well. From the Amazon description of the movie: “Kurt Russell gives a brilliant performance as the dynamic and determined coach Herb Brooks, who had an impossible dream — beat the seemingly unbeatable Soviets at their own game. Starting with a handpicked group of 26 undisciplined kids, Brooks coached them to play like they never played before, and turned 20 of them into a team that believed they could achieve the unachievable — and in the process, united a nation with a new feeling of hope.”

Think of the coach of that team, Herb Brooks, and his strategy for winning. He took players who once played for competing teams with long standing rivalries and forged a new team unlike any team that had ever played before. The way he did it has direct lessons for many areas of leadership, especially technology leadership. If you own the DVD you can see clips of the real Herb Brooks talking through how he did it. But the movie, to me, drives the lessons home very well, Herb’s commentary just add even more reality.

Watch the movie and look for these lessons/thoughts:

  • Coach Herb Brooks convinced everyone that something different had to occur than had been occurring in the past. ”Only way to succeed is to change the way we play the game. “ Then he engineered a strategy.
  • Herb picked his team, not based on who the best technicians were, but who the best team players were: “Not looking for the best players I am looking for the right players.” How does this translate to technologists? CTOs want skilled technical experts, but just as important is getting skilled technical experts who can work as part of a team.
  • Cheap shots however self justified, hurt the team “This is not about old rivalries.” As enterprises transition from the old way of doing things to the new way of doing things they must forget about our own old rivalries.
  • Orientation early is by region: “I’m Ralph Cox and I’m from where ever won’t get me hit.” Herb worked them till they realized—they are on a new team now. Frequently technologists must have the same light bulb go off. Enterprise technologists sometimes need to be reminded they play for a bigger team than they used to.
  • This is the same point Herb drives home when he says “ The name on the front is a hell of a lot more important than the name on the back”
  • The team’s identity crisis had to be fixed as it was the source of a lot of the early problems. “Think you can win on talent alone…you don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone!” “Name on the front is a hell of a lot more important than the name on the back” “Win loose tie…you are going to play like champions” “If you want to make this team you had better start playing at a level that forces me to keep you here”. Herb understood the consequences of the identity crisis the team faced he also understood he could not tell the team what their identity was; they had to figure that out for themselves.
  • Herb’s unexpected personal comments of concern towards Jimmy Craig…”I’ve got to know why you are here and where you are coming from” “I’m here aren’t I?” “Don’t forget to bring your game”.
  • NHL all stars lost because they played as individual all stars and not as a team.
  • “All Stars won’t change their game” No one has ever worked hard enough to skate with the Soviets for an entire game…. we will!
  • Dedication to improvement and personal improvement were key.
  • The Carter “Crisis in Confidence speech” is a metaphor for many old, legacy enterprise technology environments. “More believe they will be less better off in the next 5 years”. “Stop crying start sweating, stop talking start walking”.
  • 1st face-off in Madison Sq garden. Mark Johnson looks at the Soviet Captain and it is still evident he is thinking in terms of individual vs. team effort. “Jimmy Craig’s comment “you gotta listen to me” is a metaphor for the communications breakdown that led to the performance on the ice”
  • O’Callaghan injury and the decision to keep him. Herb knew that once the team was set it was less disruptive to go down a man than to introduce a new member of a successful team.
  • “Pulling the goalie” “Jimmy I Know there is more” “Coach It’s my net.” “Jimmy, They just scored 10 goals…right now its anybodies net”
  • ”Lets not turn this game into something it is not.” “I’m not sure we have any control over that”.
  • ”You earn opportunity” Through hard work you make it “your time”.
  • Face-off to the 3rd period. Compare Mark Johnson’s face to that 1st face-off in Madison Sq garden. Finally they meet as mental and physical equals. The difference…attitude and a string of “small successes.” I have seen technology teams like this. I’ve seen engineering teams who have decided to be world class best and so they are. I’ve seen technologists set goals for themselves that have them walking among the giants of computer science and enterprise operations.

A CTO needs to do more than watch a movie to be a great CTO. But this movie sure gives you things to think about. So, a big thumbs up from the CTOvision movie review team. For more see: Miracle

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